Essential Oils vs Incense: Which Is Better? (Explained for Beginners)

When it comes to deciding how you will fragrance your home, two of the more popular options include incense and essential oils.

Essential oils are extracted from plants and you can’t use essential oils directly you have to use them with a diffuser. No matter what method you use for essential oils, they are usually open flame free. Most of the incense is natural, part of them is made of essential oils. You must have an open flame to use incense.

Although they can both make your home smell wonderful, each one has its own set of benefits and drawbacks. In this article I will share the differences between the two and how you can go about determining which one is best to use in your home. 

Essential Oils vs Incense

Essential Oils vs Incense: What’s The Difference?

Incense and essential oils can fragrance the home in different ways and are sometimes created with overlapping ingredients.

How Essential Oils Are Made

Essential oils are concentrated fragrances extracted from botanical elements, like leaves, resins, barks, peel, flowers, seeds, buds, and other plant matter. 

The oils are derived from the plant matter using various methods. Most commonly, essential oils sold in the market are extracted using steam distillation, cold pressing, or by use of solvents, which is the case with absolutes.  

Since these oils are naturally drawn out of biological material, they retain their medicinal properties. Some fight against bacteria, others viruses, and still others can aid in respiratory support. Essential oils can have one or many health benefits.

Thus, when they are diffused, all of their beneficial properties are released into the air. 

How Incense Is Made

Sometimes incense is also made with essential oils. The base ingredients for incense typically include barks, leaves, herbs, flower petals, seeds, and so forth, but in powder form. This powder is then combined with a binder, usually a botanical gum.

And then here is where there may or may not be overlap with regards to aroma. Either essential oils, fragrance oils, or a combination of the two are incorporated into the incense paste for added aroma.

Higher quality incense is usually made with all natural ingredients – not additives, fragrance oils, or dyes. What you smell is purely derived from botanical matter. Average brands might combine essential and fragrance oils, but they don’t usually add dyes or other synthetic ingredients. Brands on the lower end are most likely to use fragrance oils and other synthetic materials.

Depending on the brand or collection, this paste is either molded onto a bamboo stick or shaped into stick form without a bamboo core, then left to dry.

Essential Oils vs Incense: How Are They Used? 

Essential oils are more versatile than incense.

Using Essential Oils

You can add them to body lotions, linen sprays, soaps, roll-ons, cleaning solutions, and so forth. If you need a quick burst of fragrance, you can even place a few drops on a cotton ball and set it near you in a glass dish. It’s possible that you could smell the aroma for at least an hour from just three or four drops of oil. 

In interior settings, essential oil fragrances can be released by a diffuser, in candles, or in the form of a room spray. But here on out, I will make reference to diffusers because they’re the simplest, most effective way to distribute essential oil fragrance.

Multiple types of diffusers exist:

  • Electric diffusers use heat to release fragrance.
  • Ultrasonic diffusers can also be humidifiers, and they use both water and electronic frequency to release a mist of fragrant oils. 
  • Evaporative diffusers use a fan to blow air through a filter that’s been saturated with essential oils.
  • Nebulizing diffusers reduce the essential oils into tiny particles and then with high pressure, transforms them into a fine mist that floats throughout the home.

Ultrasonic diffusers are increasingly common and only require a small amount of oil be added into the reservoir. Nebulizing diffusers are most expensive, but they also offer the purest release of essential oils.  

Using Incense

While incense is not as versatile, meaning they can only be lit or warmed to release their fragrance, they do come in many different varieties.

You can find incense in stick form, as cones, resins, powders, aromatic wood, coils, and even incense paper. Another form I’d like to try is incense that’s pressed into shapes, like cherry blossoms or frogs. 

Incense aroma is released either by lighting an incense stick, cone, wood, or coil, or indirectly by placing resins or powders on smoldering charcoal or in carrier oils placed in an oil warmer. With indirect-burning incense, the warmth from charcoal or heated oil releases the fragrance.

In terms of ease of use, incense sticks and cones are most accessible in terms of filling a room with fragrance. Many boxes include incense burners, so you would not have to purchase additional equipment. 

If you are placing essential oil on a cotton ball as I mentioned earlier, that is one of the easiest ways to use it, but the fragrance would not fill the room for long. The best way to fill your space with essential oil aroma is by use of a diffuser or nebulizer. So there is an additional equipment investment required to use essential oils in this way.

Essential Oils vs Incense: Which Is More Affordable?

Because essential oils are natural extracts and require a lot of material to produce a relatively small amount of oil, they tend to be more expensive than incense. 

Essential Oil Costs

For example, about 8 lbs of rosemary needles are required to produce one 0.5 oz (15 ml) bottle of rosemary essential oil. A hefty 47 lbs of tea tree matter is needed to produce one 0.5 oz (15 ml) bottle of tea tree essential oil. 

This helps put cost into perspective and explains why 1 oz of tea tree oil can cost between $10-$25 USD. Some companies incorporate other expenses into their market price but other companies, like NOW take a direct-to-consumer approach and offer expensive oils at a more reasonable price.

Incense Costs

Incense, on the other hand, also varies in cost. 

A box of 20 sticks is pretty common but the price can range from $3.50 USD to upwards of $100 USD for premium brands. Price variance largely reflects ingredients used to make the incense. 

But one of the benefits that I see for such a huge gap in the price range for incense is that you can find decent brands at low price points, and some really good ones at average price points. You don’t have to over extend yourself. It’s possible to find quality incense at an affordable price. 

Another aspect of affordability, though, is duration of use. How long a 1 oz bottle of essential oil or 20 stick pack of incense will last you will depend on frequency of use. If you run a diffuser for eight hours a day or burn incense sticks three to four times a day, neither will last as long as they would for someone who only uses them half as much. So that makes determining affordability challenging. 

Takeaway: There is a lower point of entry for incense than there is for essential oils.

Essential Oils vs Incense: Which One Is Better To Fragrance The Home?

When using essential oils, you can be certain that there aren’t any additives. The ingredients haven’t undergone any chemical processing, and the oils haven’t been diluted. 

Fragrancing the Home with Essential Oils

One exception is absolutes. Absolutes are essential oils extracted using a solvent, as described in this article, at the end of the extraction process, the solvent is removed, but because there might be minor traces of it left behind, they can’t be labeled as 100% essential oils. That said, absolutes are still more pure than fragrance oils because there aren’t any synthetic materials in absolutes. They weren’t made in a lab like perfumes, so absolutes can still be dropped into a diffuser. 

When fragrancing the home, essential oils are perfect for those who want to experience the medicinal benefits of plant matter through smokeless fragrance.

If you or an inhabitant of your home have a medical condition that is agitated by smoke, then essential oils are the better option over incense.

While there are low smoke incense options, whether or not to use them depends on the severity of the medical condition. Some people can be affected by small amounts of smoke equally as much as larger amounts. In such cases, I would choose essential oils all the way.

Fragrancing the Home with Incense

Incense can also offer benefits. For instance, frankincense is known for its antibacterial and anti-viral properties.

Burning it directly or indirectly can help to cleanse the air in your home. Sandalwood also fights bacteria, and it’s anti-inflammatory and helps reduce anxiety. But these benefits are carried through the air on a cloud of smoke; the amounts of which depend on the brand.

Takeaway: If you want to inhale the pure essence of herbs and plants, then choose to disseminate essential oils through a diffuser over burning or warming incense. 

Essential Oils vs Incense: Which Has Better Fragrance Options? 

I find incense fragrances to be more complex than essential oil fragrances.

Incense Fragrance Options

From my perspective, incense offers more specialized scents. For instance, as I write, I am burning Herb & Earth Matcha Green Tea incense sticks by Nippon Kodo. It is a low-smoke incense with a bamboo core that is made without dyes or unnatural ingredients. 

But this green tea fragrance doesn’t appear to be available as an essential oil. I was able to find a green tea fragrance oil. But fragrance oils are synthetic and do not offer any medicinal benefits. Some fragrance oils can even ruin diffusers. 

A newer scent that I’ve been burning is Creativity by Shoyeido. It is made of cinnamon, clove, and additional spices. There aren’t any additives, dyes, or fragrance oils in these sticks, and I can’t really distinguish one from the other. It’s simply a pleasant blend of natural fragrance.

I find this to be true of all the incense I burn, even if I dislike the fragrance, it’s never flat.

Essential Oil Fragrance Options

It is possible to purchase cinnamon and clove essential oils, and then combine them with other essential oil spices in your diffuser, but I find that natural incense releases multi-layered scents that I haven’t experienced when using essential oils.

In addition to blending the essential oils that you have on hand, it’s possible to purchase essential oil blends. For instance, this Five Guards Blend of cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lemon, and rosemary oils smells amazing, but I just don’t experience essential oil fragrances in the same way that I do incense. It’s a matter of preference.

Takeaway: For more nuanced scents that feel more experiential, you may want to choose incense over essential oils.

Essential Oils vs Incense: Which Is Safer?

With excessive use, burning incense has led to cancer in the respiratory tract.

Is Incense Safe?

In some cases, it has also been linked to poor air quality within the home and more respiratory health conditions.

But with moderate use of low smoke incense that is set a distance away from you preventing the smoke from wafting directly in your face, safe enjoyment of incense is possible. 

Quality is another factor when determining whether incense is safe. I’d stay away from those neon colored sticks and cones that are solely made with fragrance oils. They tend to emit toxic smoke from all the dyes and chemical-based scents.

Brands like Shoyeido, Nippon Kodo, and even Gonesh provide safer options. When trying new brands, always read the ingredients list. Avoid buying incense made with chemicals and dyes. 

Lastly, it’s important to make sure that incense ashes fall onto a fireproof surface. Incense can post a fire hazard it it’s not monitored while burning.

Are Essential Oils Safe?

Essential oils will never emit toxins but the diffuser that disseminates their fragrance might, without proper maintenance. 

If you have an ultrasonic diffuser, since it operates using water, it must be cleaned with rubbing alcohol or vinegar and dried out between uses to avoid mold and bacterial buildup. If you know you won’t be using it for a while, give it a more thorough cleaning. Remember to follow the manufacturers’ instructions for the best cleaning methods, though.

When diffusers aren’t properly maintained, the positive effects of essential oils become nil. 

Another way that diffusers are potentially unsafe is when water has evaporated but the machine is still in use. In my review of diffusers, it seems like more of them have an auto-shutoff valve that kicks in when water levels are low. Make sure this is an option on your diffuser or one you might purchase in the future.

The only other way that essential oils can be harmful is if they are mishandled. Since these oils are highly concentrated, they can burn your skin. Trust me, it’s painful. Try to avoid getting drops of oil directly from the bottle onto your skin. Some oils burn more than others and some people experience more or less pain. Just be careful when pouring the oils into your nebulizer.

Takeaway: Moderate and premium brand incense is safe when used in moderation. Essential oils are always safer, but you have to keep the diffuser clean to prevent illness. Avoid direct contact with your skin.

Should You Choose Essential Oils or Incense?

As always, making this choice is truly a matter of preference, but I hope I presented some ideas for you to ponder when making your decision. 

Use essential oils if:

  • You don’t want to come in contact with smoke
  • You prefer more lasting fragrance
  • You have space for a diffuser and don’t mind purchasing one
  • You don’t mind experimenting with oil blends
  • You could benefit from decongestive effects of diffusers

Use incense if:

  • You are price conscious
  • You prefer not to use additional equipment
  • You desire a specific, complex fragrance
  • You are not as concerned about fragrance lasting for hours
  • You want a deeper experience

The better choice is the one that best fits your needs, medical status, and fragrance disposition.

Grace Young

I love candles! I have personally tried over 100 brands of candles. The total burn time of these candles is over 5000 hours. I also talk about essential oil diffusers and reed diffusers. Essential oil diffusers and diffusers are also an important part of the scent in my home.

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